Bill Zender is the ultimate gambling insider. The former professional card counter, dealer, and casino floor manager shares his secrets—and explains why the best paying machine is always the ATM.
1. Identify the clumsiest dealers.
Zender estimates there are fewer than 100 professional blackjack card counters in the world. If you happen to be one of them, you might nab a 1.5 percent advantage. So save your energy, Zender advises; instead keep an eye out for the sloppy blackjack dealer who will accidentally flash the face-down card. Zender once made a living exploiting this, keeping a notebook of 35 weak dealers from 16 different casinos. The strategy is called “card holing,” and it can give you a 6 to 9 percent edge over the house. (That’s like standing in front of an ATM that spits out twenties!) The best part? “It’s totally legal,” Zender says. “They may throw me out of the casino, but they’re not going to arrest me.”
2. Keep your eyes on the prize.
Lately, casinos have sexed up their table games with bikini-clad dealers and resident pole dancers. These places are called Party Pits, and on the surface, they look like Vegas being Vegas—booze, sin, skin. But look closer. While all those twirling legs keep you distracted, you’ll probably fail to notice that the casino trimmed the payouts at these tables from 3/2 to 6/5. Meaning that a $100 bet wins only $120, compared to the traditional $150. This essentially doubles the house’s edge.
3. Know when to say when.
The house always enjoys a 5 percent edge at roulette. You have a decent chance of winning that first spin. And the second. And the third. But if you were to play roulette forever, the house would take away all your chips. Every casino has calculated the point at which they are guaranteed victory, and that magic number is 30,000 hands. (This is why they lure us back with lobster and luxury suites.) So if you’re winning, stop.
4. Exploit the laws of nature.
The roulette wheel is a mechanical instrument. Over time, the wheel may become unbalanced or the frets separating the numbers may suffer wear and tear. The more a wheel is used, the more worn down it gets—and the more it may privilege certain numbers. In 1873, Joseph Jagger found a wonky wheel at Monte Carlo and bet on the biased numbers. He came away with $400,000—that’s $7.8 million in today’s dough!
5. Go big or go broke.
“The average slot machine is probably two, three times more costly to players than the table games,” says Zender. Avoid them. If you insist on cranking a handle, focus on slots that cost $5 or more and play the max bet. On penny slots, the odds are jacked up in the house’s favor by 15 to 20 percent. You might as well toss those coins in a fountain. Don’t forget to make a wish.
6. Don’t play Keno.
Really, just don’t. Your chances are terrible. At some casinos, the house has a 35 percent edge. No gambler has ever matched all 20 numbers on a 20-spot ticket. The odds of it ever happening are 1 in 3,535,316,142,212,174,336. (That’s 3.5 quintillion!)
7. Practice makes perfect.
If there’s an exception to the adage that the house always wins, it’s in video poker. Typically, the house has only a 0.46 percent advantage (while some versions lean in the gambler’s favor). The pay table is posted right on the machine, and the payoff is high. The catch? To cash out, you need to play at an expert level. Casinos make profits on video poker because most players simply aren’t skilled enough. So study up.
8. Stay away from the light.
“Ninety percent of the people who walk into a casino have no idea of the odds stacked against them,” Zender says. But if you know what you’re looking for, it’s easy to see where the odds are the worst. Casinos make the games with the lousiest odds the most attractive by amping them up with flashing lights and bright colors. At craps, for instance, the craziest bets—“the Field,” “Any 7”—are the most colorful. So as a general rule, to better your odds, stick to the drab side of the room.
9. Invest in a nice watch.
There’s a reason you probably won’t see any clocks or windows on the house floor. Casinos want you to lose track of time so you play for as long as possible. Some casinos prohibit dealers from wearing watches for that reason. Once you’re up a bit, it might be a good time to leave the floor and go treat yourself to a new timepiece.
10. Buy your own drinks.
The truth is, nothing is free—and that includes the free booze. Each casino has something they call a “player reinvestment” fund. It predicts the amount of money you’ll lose and then returns a cut of that in the form of comps, which, to the casual floor visitor, means watery well cocktails. The worse your odds, the better your chances of landing a free drink. Cheers!
This story originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine.